The Magazine

Watch on the Rhine

Barbarians at the gate-of the Roman empire.

Mar 26, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 27 • By J.E. LENDON
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Rome's Gothic Wars

by Michael Kulikowski

Cambridge, 238 pp., $25

When the pans dredged from the river are lined up in a museum, as if on identity parade, it looks as though all the cookware in Roman Germany had banded together, commandeered a wagon, and made a break for freedom over the Rhine.

In fact, the pans had accomplices: the barbarian Alamanni, who invaded the Roman empire in A.D. 259. When the raiders turned for home, they took with them wagons piled high with loot. But perhaps in the face of Roman counterattack, or perhaps because a raft was greedily overloaded, one of those wagons, carrying nearly a ton of metal goods, toppled into the Rhine.

What German scholars call with pleasant irony the "barbarian treasure" from Neupotz, exhibited last year at Speyer, contains some coins and a few handsome bits of silver. But most of the thousand-odd metal objects are the most prosaic imaginable: pots and more pots (carefully packed for transport, the little ones nested in the big ones, like an Ikea starter set for newlyweds), casserole dishes and strainers, plates and cups, bowls and kettles and spoons, carafes and water jugs, carving knives and wood-axes, cooking racks and smithy tongs, files and hammers, chisels and awls and adzes, wool shears and sheep-bells, horseshoes and lengths of chain. And metal door-locks, too, laboriously cut from the doors they once protected.

Study of this piled junk reveals that it did not come from the area of Germany where it was found, but instead from Limousin in the southwest of France, over 350 miles away as the crow flies (and crows are bad at pulling wagons). A little epic of human effort ended when the wagon and its pots clattered into the river.

You've got to wonder about a people who would walk round-trip the distance from New York to Peoria to plunder Kmart. And from that wonder come misgivings about the new school of late Roman history, "Barbarian Studies" (named from the prophetic New Yorker cartoon depicting two horsemen bristling with weapons, and a third wearing a tweed jacket and smoking a pipe, captioned "Two barbarians and a professor of barbarian studies").

According to this school, of which Michael Kulikowski's Rome's Gothic Wars is exemplary, any high jinks the barbarians got up to were always, deep down, the Romans' fault. A naturally peaceful folk were militarized by Roman aggression born of imperial politics and the emperor's need to find martial busywork for his soldiers. Scholars had examined Roman-barbarian relations since the days of Edward Gibbon, and found plenty of fault on either side: Only now has Rome become the sole garden of dark flowers; only now has the Roman empire become Mordor.

Roman authors, of course, had a different view: They tended to regard the barbarians as, well, barbarians. Barbarians raided and invaded because they were greedy and aggressive, or because they were pushed over the Roman border by tribes more greedy and aggressive than they. The Professor of Barbarian Studies dismisses these ancient views as prejudice.

"That sort of essentialist explanation can hardly be enough for us," he sniffs, while cheerfully applying exactly the same kind of explanation to the Romans. In blaming the Romans for barbarian attacks in the third through fifth centuries A.D., he slights the detail--upon which the Romans themselves remarked--that Rome's relations with her neighbors changed over the course of her long history. Once upon a time the Romans had, indeed, been extremely aggressive, but after Augustus' loss of Varus' three legions in Germany in A.D. 9, Rome for the most part stood on the defensive behind her Rhine and Danube river borders.

Tacitus, appalled by this newfound meekness, tells us why: The calculus of autocracy made military aggression too dangerous for the regime. Defeats undermined imperial power, and victories raised up successful generals as rivals to the purple. The professor's insistence that "military victories were a vital legitimizing device for imperial power" would have puzzled a number of Roman emperors of the first and second centuries A.D., who felt quite free to do without such victories, preferring to root their power in the protection of a prosperous peace. Even the ubiquitous traces of fourth-century Rome's defensive-mindedness, the fortifications along the Rhine and Danube strengthened in such desperation and at such cost, can be dismissed as "grandiose" manifestations of eccentric pride or made part of Rome's aggressive plans: The new castles "could serve as advance posts for Roman military action."